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Did the Forest Service damage study areas?

Futzing with wilderness areas

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The U.S. Forest Service has appealed a federal court decision which found the agency guilty of damaging seven wilderness study areas in Montana. Last May, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy found in favor of three Montana conservation groups which had sued the Forest Service for allowing motorized trails in areas Congress mandated be maintained for their wilderness characteristics.

John Gatchell, conservation director for the Montana Wilderness Association, blasted the Forest Service for harming the wilderness study areas in the first place, and then for appealing a decision that ordered the agency to restore the damaged lands.

“I think people should understand where the Forest Service is at,” says Gatchell. “They’re destroying our last wild places. What’s the problem here? Can’t they even maintain trails?”

In 1977 Congress created wilderness study areas which were to be managed for their wild characteristics in anticipation of someday receiving full congressional wilderness status.

The Montana Wilderness Association in Helena, American Wildlands in Bozeman and Friends of the Bitterroot in Hamilton sued the agency in 1996 after the groups discovered that the Forest Service was not only allowing all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, into these areas, but in at least one case on the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF), was actually creating new ATV roads and widening existing foot trails to accommodate motorized vehicles. Gatchell says the groups sued only after trying to convince the Forest Service to stop building roads into the wilderness study areas and to repair the damage.

The seven areas are: the Blue Joint on the Bitterroot National Forest; the West Pioneer Range in the Big Hole; the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn south of Bozeman; the Big Snowies south of Lewistown; the Middle Fork of the Judith River near Great Falls and Ten Lakes on the Kootenai National Forest. Gatchell also faults the Forest Service for disregarding years of citizen effort that went into creating the wilderness study areas, and for ignoring its own history. Some of the trails were blazed by old-time rangers, and in some places, he says, obvious care was taken to skirt around sensitive wildlife habitat.

Dixie Dies, a public affairs officer for the BNF, says environmentalists are wrong when they claim that ATV trails were created or expanded on the BNF. Those trails already existed when Congress established the wilderness study areas 24 years ago. Molloy’s order to restore the land to its condition in 1977 is a “discrepancy that doesn’t make sense,” she says. The case has been appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court. Gatchell predicts it will be years before it’s settled. In the meantime, he says, the Forest Service, instead of spending tax dollars on restoration work, will instead spend it on lawyers.

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